Early-Education Advocates Welcome Fresh Federal Infusion
Funding restoration to buoy Head Start
Pregnant women, infants, and children up to age 3 could end up being particular beneficiaries of the $1 billion boost that early-childhood education received in the recently approved federal spending bill, signed into law by President Barack Obama Jan. 17.
Lawmakers divided the funding increase between the Head Start program, which serves 4-year-olds, and Early Head Start, which was created in 1994 to serve the needs of families and younger children. In all, the programs will be funded at about $8.6 billion, which restores the reductions made to the program due to the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, and adds about 1.3 percent in cost-of-living adjustments.
In fiscal year 2013, before the sequestration cuts, Early Head Start had a budget of about $1.3 billion, so the $500 million increase it will see for the remainder of fiscal 2014 represents a larger proportion of its current funding. Nationwide, Early Head Start serves about 4 percent of the children who would be eligible for services.
In contrast, the budget allotted directly to Head Start programs in fiscal 2013 was about $6.5 billion. Administrative and technical-assistance costs brought the program's entire budget to about $8 billion before sequestration.
While Head Start children are served in preschool centers, Early Head Start providers have the option of offering home-based services as well as center-based programs for infants and young toddlers.
Ouida Foster Toutebon, the executive director of Head Start of Rockland in New York state, manages both a Head Start and Early Head Start program. About 850 children are served in the program for 4-year-olds, and 82 slots are allotted to Early Head Start "with a long wait list," she said.
The home-based services her program provides include weekly, 90-minute visits with children and parents, many of whom are pregnant teenagers from local high schools. The Early Head Start employees share nutrition and child-development information with the families, provide children's books and developmentally appropriate toys, and connect the families with community resources.
"These children flow right into the Head Start program," Ms. Toutebon said. And with a dearth of quality day-care options available for infants and toddlers, "people are really strapped," she said.
The need for quality early-childhood programs is also intense in the 16 western Kentucky counties served by Audubon Area Community Services, Inc., said Aubrey Nehring, the organization's chief executive officer. Like the program in New York state, the organization has both center-based and home-based Early Head Start components that reach out to families in rural areas.
"There's a shortage of child care to begin with," Mr. Nehring said. And what is available is often not very high quality, he said. While the Head Start program he oversees has 1,564 funded slots, only 300 Early Head Start slots are available, which equates to about 4 percent of the eligible population in the area, Mr. Nehring said.
The new budget measure's language allows the conversion of Head Start funds to Early Head Start programs, and also says that money can be used to fund partnerships between Early Head Start and family child-care providers.
That broad discretion in how the money should be used for a single national grant competition is aimed at funding the very best early child-care services, rather than set allocations for specific services, said Sara Mead, an early-childhood policy analyst for Bellwether Education Partners in Washington. Allowing communities the flexibility to spend the funds in ways that best support their region's needs could produce "that much more bang for the buck," said Ms. Mead, who writes a blog for the Education Week website, edweek.org.
"If you use those resources to create partnerships, you can leverage those early-childhood dollars and raise the bar on quality in those child-care centers," she said.
The Obama administration, as part of its push to improve early-childhood education, also pointed to Early Head Start and child-care partnerships as key components of its early-education push unveiled in 2013 during the president's State of the Union address. The president had called for a $1.4 billion competitive-grant program in that area, which would have increased the number of infants and toddlers served in the program by more than 100,000 children.
Ms. Mead said the money was reflective of a general trend towards shifting the focus of Head Start to be more of a birth-to-5 program, instead of one focused just on preschool-age children.
Early-childhood advocates said that the extra money for both programs was welcome.
"People have taken in, at a gut level, the importance of early childhood and that investments make a difference," said Adele B. Robinson, the deputy executive director for policy and public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The focus on early childhood was, coincidentally, reinforced by the recent release of a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy devoted solely to health issues. On Jan. 13, the foundation released a report titled "Time to Act: Investing in the Health of Our Children and Communities," which made a specific call for high-quality early-childhood programs for all children.
"I think there's some momentum here," said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and a member of the panel convened by the foundation to write the report. "The nice thing about this issue is that you're beginning to get some sort of bipartisan legs, and that's really important."
Vol. 33, Issue 19, Page 18